Sep 22 2010

In Between

Listening to the French passengers waiting to board the airplane, I feel a kinship with them. They are leaving the land of large portions and loud talkers to return to the subtler world of degrees of humor and real cheese. It sounds like they’ve all had a pleasant holiday, but most of them look relieved to be returning to more familiar soil.

I love the lyrical sound of the banter between them. French is a language I can understand, but only if I am listening deliberately. If I choose to zone out, conversations can swirl around me without penetrating my consciousness. This is impossible in my mother tongue of American English; I am too easily distracted by peripheral conversations which, in French, are more like background music.

Each time I visit the United States, I am initially assaulted by this capacity to understand everything I hear. I become an unwilling eavesdropper. I don’t want to hear how much that guy had to drink last night or how much she spent on her Manolo Blahniks but I am obliged, not only because of the volume of these not-necessarily-nearby discussions but due to the fact that I understand them instantly: it’s all in my mother tongue.

Yet back in France, surrounded by the less optimistic language of French with its more subtle nuances and accompanying gestures of skepticism – the French shrug for one – I tire of never-quite-fully understanding everything, or on the other hand, the need of certain French speakers to explain things to me so thoroughly without noticing that I got the point a whole paragraph ago. In France, I feel other and yet sitting in this American airport lounge, waiting to board an overnight flight, I feel a solidarity. I’m one of them and we are going home.

Short-pants and Buddy-roo have their unique appreciation of the two languages. Passport carrying Americans they are, but they move between French and English with ease, just as they navigate the cultural nuances. Short-pants’ command of the language is correct, this becomes more apparent each year as her automatic capacity to align nouns with their feminine or masculine articles puts me to shame. She and I have reached an agreement: I am delighted for her corrections as long as they are gentle admonishments offered privately in the spirit of assistance rather than in public with embarrassed disdain. She’ll touch my arm softly and whisper, “Mama, you said un and it should be une.” I am honestly grateful for her assistance when offered in this fashion. I’m pretty sure Buddy-roo will not follow suit. My charming little mistakes will be the cause of eye-rolls and giggling behind cupped-hands with all of her French-speaking friends.

Our girls are native speakers, even with English as their mother tongue. Since it’s not the primary language spoken in our home, their French vocabulary is a bit behind that of their classmates, but their pronunciation is native. This assured by attending French schools since the tender-eared age of three. What a gift we give them. Even if we were to leave France next week to live somewhere else (a new adventure is always in our minds, but to where?) they will always be able to speak French like a local. Twenty years on it might require a small amount of study to recall the sentence structure and vocabulary, but the accent has been embedded. They will always sound French.

Beyond language, though, what nationality are they? Born on French soil, but of American blood, they ultimately get the right to be both, if they choose. I once asked Buddy-roo if she felt more American or French. “Française,” she said, turning on her toes and sauntering out of the room. (She seems to have mastered the French art of being a coquette.)

Having lived outside my own country for eighteen years, I find myself in the occasionally awkward stance of feeling in between cultures. I am an American. At the core of my beliefs is the idea that you can do whatever you dream if you set yourself to it, that one is not bound by class or caste to any destiny, that a little ingenuity and perseverance will get you where you need to go. Americans don’t own this mindset uniquely (nor is it a truth for everyone in our country), but perhaps we aspire to it more organically than other cultures. But I think I’ve become an American of another generation, that having left the county a week before Bill Clinton was elected President (though I did vote, absentee), I feel out of touch with a lot of what’s happening now in the United States. I don’t understand the vitriol of our political discourse. I can’t believe the problem with obesity or the number of drug stores per capita. I’m stunned by the absolute consumerism and dismayed by the circus that is television news. It’s not the America I pledged allegiance to every morning in school, when I was growing up, and I’m not entirely sure it’s the America I’d want the girls to call their home.

So I am in between. Often in transit.
I can take advantage of my American passport to enter my home country more swiftly than international tourists. But once beyond the customs agent, I do sometimes feel other. This is not an angst-ridden other; I enjoy visiting and I appreciate my home country as much as I’m perplexed by it. But it means I’m not entirely rooted anywhere, which is a bit liberating. I’m hoping our girls can absorb this, to see the benefits and drawbacks of both of their cultures – of any culture they hope to visit – and to study them as interesting rather than judging them as superior or inferior. This is the opportunity of living in between, the capacity to observe and appreciate everything: French, American, or other.


Sep 10 2010

#Fail

If you could evaluate my mothering style for the last week, it would be a giant hash tag: #Fail. I’ve been impatient, quick to shout, rushing through the to-do list, rushing through the apartment, rushing through my angry life. This is partly due to a big job, one with tentacles that reach far beyond the original scope of the project. It’s also due to the rentreé – what the French call this moment of back to school, back to work after taking most of August off. Or maybe it’s just me, drowning in my own expectations.

Despite my foresight in July to buy all the girls’ books and school supplies before the crowded and dreaded last week of August, I still scrambled to get them out the door fully prepared for their first day of school, and it didn’t keep me from being subjected to the annual French pedagogical practice of scorning the parents. There were messages from the maitresses in the Cahiers de Correspondence reminding me that their books have not been properly covered in clear plastic wrap (akin to working with fly paper) or the wrong kind of colored pencils have been purchased, we have to send another box of tissues to the school, we need ID photos for the kids by the next morning and even though it’s 7:00 and I just got home and there’s still homework to finish and dinner to be made and another teleconference at 9:00, something I try to avoid but inevitably with colleagues and clients in other continents this rule gets excepted and tonight of all the nights I have a call but yes we’ll find pictures of you both and print them out for school tomorrow.

Oh and what’s this other note from the teacher? I have to fill out medical forms with the name, address and all phone numbers of mother, father and babysitter, a form much like the three forms I filled out and sent to school with each child (6 forms!) yesterday, only I must attach a copy of the their vaccination records even though I did this last year and the year before and don’t they keep these records on file? Even though everybody would be happier if they just computerized the system mais non it wouldn’t be the same if those faded photocopied forms weren’t sent home every year to be filled out exponentially.

As you can tell, I’m about to lose it.

De-facto smartly steps back and leaves a larger path for me to run my Tazmanian Devil routine. My murmuring and muttering in the kitchen – and by the way why can’t he load the damn dishwasher correctly – is less offensive if heard from another room on the other side of the apartment. The girls attempt to console me, but they are wrapped up in their own dramas: new teachers, an increased load of homework, back to the weekday morning up-and-out when they’d rather hang-around-and-play. Everybody is adjusting to something.

Then the Skype phone rings. If I answer it, something that I’ve been trying to handle for the last three days can disappear from my list. I hesitate. I don’t want to answer it, but then that something will keep stalking me. The headset goes on.

I swear, after each job, that from now on I will be the kind of mom that does not work between 5 pm and bedtime, in order to be present, help with homework, sit on the couch and tickle, cuddle or read together, to sit calmly at dinner and inquire about their day, to be the mom who gives them the most precious thing ever – more precious than any new toy or gadget – the precious thing of time. But I am not really that mom. I cannot even manage this simplest part of mothering without interruptions.

Then I realize that I’ve failed to be the mom I want to be, the one who’s busy enough to set a good example about being engaged in the world and having a purpose and a profession, but also that mom who’s present: listening, understanding, caring, being there. I’ve failed to be zen, calm, cool and together. Failed to juggle it all the way I proclaimed I would when I was in my twenties imagining myself as the über-working-mother. Failed to live up to my own expectations. Failed to bridge the widening gap between my real self and my ideal self.

While I’m on the call, Short-pants stubs her toe on the kitchen island but it happens just at the moment I am building up to the climax of that critical point I really needed to make. Instead of comforting her, I hold my finger up to my mouth and she runs upstairs to her room screeching. Then it’s all pointless; I’m not really listening to the other side of the call anymore because I’m feeling the hollow dent in my gut as I join, once again, the failing-mother’s club.

By the time I finish, my daughters are at each other’s throats and I head upstairs to mediate. I am too exhausted to cope – I have spent an entire day being polite to people, listening through conference calls with far too many participants, carefully crafting emails meant to inspire a positive response. I have spent every ounce of my poise on other people and now, at home, hungry, tired and exasperated, I fly off the cuff at the littlest thing. I even use the F-word, much to my chagrin.

“Mama,” Short-pants says, “you just said fuck.”

“I know,” I say, “that’s really bad.”

They stare at me, waiting to see what I’ll do next.

“Shall we all say it together now?” I’m on a roll. “Ready one, two, three.”

We all scream it out loud and then I say “Okay it’s a bad, bad word. Let’s none of us ever use it again.”

They nod at me, still in shock.

“Okay, maybe one more time, to get it out of our system.” I count to three and we all scream it again at the top of our lungs and then fall on the bed giggling and laughing. Which turns to crying. Crying because it’s all so much, it’s all too much. Too much to do. Too much to miss. Too much to manage. There’s too much everything. Too much love and too much pain. There’s just too much.

Sometimes I feel like I’m failing spectacularly. Of course this not true: if you spend an hour in the presence of my daughters you’ll experience them in the most positive way: They are engaging with adults but still magically childlike. They are polite but expressive. They are little thinking, feeling people. They open their hearts to the world, without making too much of a fuss. I like to joke about Buddy-roo‘s materialism, but she has a good heart and she can surprise you with her thoughtfulness. And Short-pants, she’s as wise as a crone. They’re both turning out just fine. But still, my mothering is flawed and sloppy, inconsistent. (Clearly, it must be De-facto’s influence.)

Listen, I know this is all just a lot of noise. I know that the most important thing is to love them and to let them know they’re loved. I know that it’s better for them to see me as a real person with regular human frailties, not as some sort of bionic super-mom. But even though I profess that I’m not trying to be perfect and do it all – it’s a big fat lie. I know it’s impossible and futile, but honestly I can’t help myself. It’s in me.

What worries me is that I will pass this on, that it will be in them, that somehow they will think that they have not been good enough, that they will perceive my impatience as a reflection on them. It becomes imperative to let go, to lighten up and laugh at it all. If not for my own sanity, at least do it for theirs. But can I do that while under pressure? Not yet, apparently. But I’m working on it.


Sep 1 2010

Morning Questions

Now that they are older, they wake up at a reasonable hour, something later than eight o’clock and occasionally after nine in the morning. (Well, until school starts tomorrow.) They totter down the stairs with that first-steps-in-the-day stiffness; their thumping like a gentle alarm clock alerting me that they are awake and they are coming my way. Then appears one of them – it could be either of the girls, though Short-pants is prone to rising earlier – pushing open the door to our bedroom, which sticks and sometimes requires serious muscle. A little sprite appears, donning just a pair of pink Cinderella underwear, lifts up the white comforter cover and crawls in between the sheets for the morning cuddle. It might be moments later – or as long as an hour – when the other one arrives and squeezes into the bed on the other side of me.

These cuddles are mostly wordless, except for the three questions:
Did you sleep well?
Did you have any good dreams?
Did you wake up feeling loved?
Short-pants adores the ritual of this Q&A, and answers each one with a deliberate “Yesssss,” letting the s stretch out for emphasis. I rarely ask Buddy-roo; before I even finish the first question she interrupts, “I don’t want you to ask me those questions.” I’ve asked her why not, dozens of times. The best I can get out of her is that she just doesn’t like them. So we cuddle in silence.

I’m struck by how the character of the morning cuddle has transformed over the years. When they were babies, this was the moment when they took my breast for the first meal of the day while I savored those last minutes of precious sleep. Then they were toddlers and we were constantly at war, fighting to keep them out of our bed until the sun had risen (our line in the sand), when the morning cuddle revealed the true pyrrhic nature of all those little battles we’d won the night before. This morphed into another stage in which their arguing, despite our admonishments, would crescendo into tearful screaming matches about who got to be on what side of the bed next to which parent – a prize that was hard to predict because De-facto and I never knew which of us was the coveted parent and we could fall out of favor at the drop of a hat.

Until now, a new phase, when they seem very content to wake up slowly, rising softly and silently and joining us in bed with little expectation of conversation, just the warmth and comfort of their parents and another twenty minutes of dream-time and morning slumber. (This is a great phase.)

I came across a photograph of my mother that I took a little over a year ago. Aware of her impending departure, I tried to capture little vignettes of her – things I wanted to remember – like the expression on her face while she washed the dishes (I snapped this without her noticing, from outside the window above her kitchen sink), or seeing her seated in her designated place at the head of the dining room table or curled on the couch watching television with her eyes closed. One morning I even photographed her sleeping in her bed, with her back toward me. I realized I didn’t have a strong memory of her sleeping alone in her bed; when I lived at home my father was usually beside her. Then there’s this: she was always up earlier than me. I never saw her sleeping in. Until that morning.

I took note of the details: the color of her tousled hair, the lace trim of the familiar nightgown against the skin on the back of her neck, her hand raised next to her pillow, clutching a piece of Kleenex. After I took the photo, I lifted the covers and slipped into bed beside her and put my arm around her. I wished somebody else was there to take a picture of the two of us in our morning cuddle so I could show Short-pants and Buddy-roo.

Instead I told them about it, which I suppose is even better because they had to conjure up their own image of the occasion in their minds. This prompted an inquisition: When you cuddled with Grammy, did she ask you the morning questions? No. Why not? I made them up for you. You made them up for us? Yes. Why? I don’t know. But why? I guess maybe to ease gently into using words after a long sleep. Gently? Why gently? (You see where this is going.)

This morning, they arrived within minutes of each other, their long, lithe bodies quickly snapping up the covers and diving into bed with us. We dozed in and out of the velvet pocket of morning sleep. When it felt like enough time had passed for words, I ran through the three questions with Short-pants. She answered with an emphatic and serpent-like “Yesssss,” pulling her arms tighter around me with each response.

I know Buddy-roo hates the questions but I keep thinking maybe someday she’ll change her mind and share this little ritual with us, and remember it later in her life as a good moment in her childhood. So occasionally I try them out on her anyway. This morning I braced myself for her usual scorn, but instead – surprisingly – she answered me.

Did you have a good sleep? It was okay, except it was too hot in my bed. Do you have any good dreams? I don’t remember if I dreamt or not. Did you wake up feeling loved? Maybe, if there are pancakes for breakfast.

Not so gentle, but not a bad way to start.